Sunday, March 27, 2011

N.Y. RANGERS ~ King Lundqvist XI

NEW YORK RANGERS:  One Goal Is Fine With Henrik; Lundqvist Is Great For Us.

New York 1;  Boston 0

Henrik Lundqvist's league leading 11th shut-out of the season left little doubt as to how the Rangers plan on playing deep into April and hopefully beyond.  Yes, of course I am assuming a Blueshirt appearance in the playoffs here.  But their formula for success basically boils down to one or two goals a game; tenacious defense, and their Goalie providing nightly miracles.  No secret there.  But the team has given Coach Tort's vision of them, a physical identity and it all starts with our goalie; the goalie Coach Torts challenged to ignore a pain in the neck.

Over his last ten games, The King is 8-1-1 with a 1.67 Goals Against Average.  In that span, he has recorded three shut-outs, to include yesterday afternoon's 11th of the season versus Boston.

I questioned in my last post how much the loss of Marty Biron will affect us down the stretch.  Last season, the Rangers had to go on a late season tear to put themselves into a position to play Philly in that fateful end of season battle for eighth place that ended in a New York Rangers shoot-out loss and no playoffs.  Henrik Lundqvist played 17 consecutive games down the stretch as the Rangers suffered inadequate back-up syndrome all season long.  After the season Henrik admitted the work load took a slight toll on him and his knees wound up requiring treatment.  Marty Biron was supposed to rectify that problem for us.  He served the role marvelously until he too went down to injury like many Rangers this season.  This last game against Boston was Lundqvist's 21st consecutive start between the pipes as the Rangers try to cling to their currently held 7th playoff spot.  However, instead of showing signs of wearing down, Henrik seems to be surging at the right moment and appears eager to carry the team on his back through a potential post season.

But now the word is out on New York's goalie.  And Ranger Defense-men better take notes; - Henrik is tending net like The King again, and the only way to knock him off his game is to roll the goalie.  Montreal, Pittsburgh and Boston all took runs at our Liege in consecutive games.  This isn't incidental contact anymore.  This is scouting report stuff just like beating him glove high once was.  He's been playing with a stiff neck and has responded with shut-outs.  The Bruins peppered Henrik with shots in the third period Saturday and the Rangers' goalie denied them all.  So you can beat on Henrik, but you can't break him.  But the Blueshirts had better be well prepared to defend him and fight for him.  Henrik will now have a much needed three full days off before a major show down with the Buffalo Sabres this coming Wednesday night.

Taking a Que from their goalie, the Blueshirt skaters in front of him are themselves sacrificing their bodies and allowing themselves to get peppered with shots; in the form of Blocked Shots; a courageous amount of blocked shots.  This is what Coach Torts has demanded of his team.  But to watch them put it into action, it's almost as if they're doing it for fun; painful fun.  And the more shots you take at them, the wider their smile (or grimace) about it becomes.

There-in lies the unspoken mantra of this team; No Pain, No Gain - Success comes with a price.  Boston came out hitting the Blueshirts hard and often.  But the Rangers absorbed hits and gave em back; just ask Chara.  Taking the body in addition to the blocked shots? - That's called taking the body to another level.  While admirable and gladiatorial in their execution, how much can one Blueshirt take?  In this case, it's a nice problem for the Blueshirt faithful to ponder due to the strongest indications yet, the Rangers are officially a major factor in the Eastern Conference despite what a 7th seed may inspire you to think.

This is based on recent wins against Philadelphia, San Jose and recurring poundings they issued against Washington this season.  There have been gritty give-and-takes against Pittsburgh and multiple wins against Boston.  A resounding victory at the Garden against Montreal and PITT may have been followed up with suspect efforts against Florida and Ottawa, but making one goal stand up to Boston when bearing down was order of the day, is hopefully more indicative of this team than the one that tended to play down to last week's opponents.

This team is what it is; and that means good enough to play with every team in the League.  In addition to victories against the teams mentioned above, they own wins against the likes of Chicago and Vancouver.  However, if there is a team the Rangers have absolutely no answer for, it's the Tampa Bay Lightning.  That's just not happening for us.  But let's let optimism dance in our minds for a day before we get back to the mindless grind of focusing on the moment when taking the ice against the Sabres in Buffalo later this week.

As of today, Sunday, March 27, 2011, the Rangers have 87 points in the Eastern Conference standings.  Last season, they finished with 87 points and a 38-33-11 record which was bad enough for ninth place.  This season, the Rangers have already amassed a record of 41-30-5.  They've improved on last season by three wins thus far with six games left to play.

Last season, the Rangers ended up with 219 goals-for, which rated them 16th in the league. Today, they currently rank 11th in the league and fourth in their conference with 218; again, with six games left to play.

Now if you really put your thinking caps on, you'll remember how most experts predicted the Rangers would not make the playoffs this season.  At the most optimistic, we (me, Media and fans) thought they'd be battling for eighth place.  Some predicted the Rangers to fall to as low as 12th or 13th in the conference.

Well according to the spread Glen Sather set on the table back in October, predictions of the Blueshirt decline started materializing by Thanksgiving and we all thought many Fans would not survive another coming cruel winter and perish like modern urban hockey pilgrims.

Chris Drury, Alex Frolov and even Vinny Prospal (who has played exceptionally well since his return with 17 points in 23 games) was the plan remember?  And Marian Gaborik was supposed to be the guy who buttered our bread.  Fedotenko?  Boogaard?

I know.

Well, Gaborik has done well to grind back to respectability and now has 22 goals in 56 games played.  But the Rangers' successes have their genesis in Glen Sather's failures, and in their place, come all the players responsible for improvements upon last year and our viability as an Eastern Conference team capable of playing out of this eight team bracket. 

Improvement was expected of Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan and they've largely played-up to the task.  But Brian Boyle and his 21 goals; Artem Anisimov with 18 goals; Derek Stepan with 20 goals; and even Brandon Prust chipping in with his 12 goals have been the success stories and part of the very promising in-season turn-around the Rangers managed on the fly.  When we take the other names like Michael Sauer, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh and other blue-collar workmen on this team and add them to the story, would you agree this spring is shaping up to be unlike the one's we've been embarrassed by during our playoff appearances under Tom Renny?  And shouldn't we give, not only these kids who saved our season for us, but to the Coach who managed, toughened them up, and demanded they be something better than they thought they could be, his equal share of credit?

As of today, we are tied with Montreal for 6th place in the Conference standings with 87 points.  Fresh off beating New Jersey, the eighth place Sabres now have 85 points and play Tuesday night against Toronto before facing off against the Rangers the following night.  The Sabres can very well end Toronto's season and become tied with the Rangers at 87 points by the time Wednesday rolls around.

Whether the Rangers are making strides towards the future or running away from the past, they will do so first with a short little tour of New York State.  Wednesday night's game against the Buffalo Sabres is set up to be a most Epic Clash.  Then from Western New York, the Blueshirts must travel to Long Island for a game the next night before returning home.

Mats Zuccarello was the healthy scratch this time.  Sean Avery's last game was an incredulous effort against the Islanders.  He's been a healthy scratch four out of the last five games.  So what does he do on his first shift of the game?  Just over two and a half minutes into the game he dropped gloves with Boston's Gregory Campbell. - Five for fighting and really no harm done man-power wise.  Coach Torts would allow him only another 5:45 of ice time the rest of the night as he was limited to 9 shifts; by far the team's lowest.

Heading into the game against Buffalo, there are only three questions:
1) - Does Coach Torts scratch Mats Zuccarello again in favor of Avery?
2) - Does Coach Torts scratch Sean Avery again?
3) - Does Coach Torts scratch someone else (Christensen) and keep Avery on the ice again?

We shall see.


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